Kirsch depicts the act of writing and of literature in general in grand, austere, spare, and intense language (however contradictory those words are) that you rarely hear in daily American speech outside of a freshman dorm. I mean that more as a dis to contemporary American speech than to Adam Kirsch (or to college freshman). Kirsch is but a pup, born in 1976, but statements like these make him sound like he was born in 1846 in one of Germany’s more bookish regions:
…a writer with perfect trust would not have to do any work, but simply confide his intentions and aspirations to God. His effort, the pains he takes, are the precise measure of his lack of trust.
…the historical passion is rooted in resentment: reading is a way of gaining mastery over people and things that would be too painful to confront in reality, because they are so unmistakably superior to us...
Literature tells us nothing really about what most people’s lives are like or have ever been like. If it has a memorial purpose, it is more like that of an altar at which priests continue to light a fire, generation after generation, even though it gives no heat and very little light.
But as much as I am ready to defend the tone, I don’t necessarily agree with those statements. To the first comment: a writer may also write out of a sense of duty to the God he trusts already: He gave me the gift, therefore I am using the gift as I am supposed to (cf. Mt. 25: 14-30, The Parable of the Talents.) Or maybe the motive was more mundane. A writer may find writing, editing, rewriting and even staring at a blank page in frustration fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, or even in some sense plain old fun. To the second comment: reading about the great people in history may be more a way of fostering awe and reference than mastery. And lastly to the third: literature tells us nothing about most people’s lives? As a revisionist statement it’s worth taking seriously (I have read this essay four times, after all), but we are probably learning a lot more than “nothing really” about Victorian England by picking up David Copperfield.
While I have only read a small pile of his criticism, a few poems, and none of his complete books, I am nevertheless comfortable saying that Adam Kirsch is one of the best writers we have today. Ironically enough, this very essay questions both the collective in “we” and the possessive in “have” in that statement. The despair expressed here, eloquent lamentations by an extraordinarily talented writer in one of the finest literary magazines in the world, is akin to Nietzsche’s Madman singing a requiem aeternam deo inside a church. “What after all, are these churches now,” he asked, “if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
When we read history or novels, we always imagine ourselves in the position of the protagonist, the position of agency; not remembering that we ourselves, had we lived then, would not have had the remotest chance of being protagonists, but would have lived in the outer darkness into which the light of narrative never penetrates.
Roger Ebert wrote about this in 2011, and was himself prompted by another lamentation on literary oblivion by Cynthia Ozick. In her essay, Ozick offered a long list of mid-20th century literary icons (James T. Farrell, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, and 29 more.) She asked, “who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his ‘field’) is reading” them? Ebert “read through this list with dismay. I have read all but two of those writers, love some, and met five. Yet I know with a sinking feeling that Ozick asks the correct question.”
Is James T. Farrell less deserving of oblivion than John Wilson? If you just said “who?” then you are the reader of this blog who is not my mom. John Wilson was my uncle, died in 2002 at the age of 92. Catholic priest, did a lot of good. Within a few decades he will be an even dimmer memory than he is now, and within a hundred years he will be entirely forgotten. Maybe faster. This is the fate of all men, eventually. Even Farrell and McCarthy and Kazin. Even Ozick and Ebert and Kirsch. Unlike Ebert, I did not read the long list of the already forgotten with dismay. That is simply the way it goes. And since, unlike Ebert and Ozick and Kirsch, I am already not widely read and admired, I am perhaps more comfortable with oblivion.
It’s a slur to sully literature with that kind of word, so I apologize to the entire staff of The New York Review of Books. But despite the aspirations and hopes and gravity I bring to my writing, it does remind me of hobbies cooking and running. If it wasn’t fun, I would not be here at my desk and neither would Kirsch at his. “Gosh, that was fun” is not the kind of valedictory statement you will hear from one of our eminent writers during a Nobel acceptance speech, but it is a motive worth considering when you ask what the fucking point of all this is. His effort, the pains he takes, could also be the precise measure of how much he likes to write.
…it is no coincidence that [late Modern Lit, of Beckett et al.] was also the time when the writer lost his connection with humanity, thanks to the increasing restriction and specialization of literature. Perhaps the sense we find in such writers that all human activity is cosmically pointless is simply the symptom of this isolation—as when an animal kept in a cage, far from its kind, pines away and languishes. To be immersed in the human world so deeply that one can’t see outside it, so as to question the validity or purpose of the whole—that is the natural state of man.
Writing, not philosophy, is the true practice of death—it translates the self into print as a rehearsal for the time when the self disappears and print is all that remains.
I performed improv for eleven years. I did hundreds of shows and they’re all gone. It’s a very edifying to know that the art you work so hard at will disappear in an instant and that no one will remember a thing about within a few months, aside from a line or two out of every 30 or 40 shows. "The only copy of Catullus’s poems to survive from antiquity," Kirsh tells us, "was discovered in the Middle Ages, plugging a hole in a wine barrel." Well, it's gonna take a hell of a lot more than serendipity to bring my best bits back.
So to toss this essay on my site, with no Tweet alerting anyone I did it, may be akin to tossing it into oblivion deliberately. It will certain get there faster than anything in the pages of Poetry. May that be a sort of ironic homage to Adam Kirsch.